Zella puts fresh bottles of beer in front of us and asks if we’d like some ribs she’s just made. We nod, and as she heads toward the back to get our meals, she says, “You know, a lot of the young folks go away to college. In Jamaica, Barbados, sometimes even in England or the States. If the government pays, they have to come back here to work, but if they pay on their own, they just disappear. Marry up with someone from that country and stay there, don’t return.”
I am wondering about my friend Truly Corey. She was a neighbor of ours when we lived here and ran The Lady. Somehow, she managed every time I saw her to point out that I couldn’t be a West Indian woman until I learned something or other that she felt was important: how to clean a fish to perfection, how to get conch meat out of its shell and tenderize it, how to cut up a sea turtle and cook it properly, how to identify pear bush and prepare it to cook it with rice, how to use saltfish to its best advantage, how to walk out in the bush and carefully choose herbs to prepare in a tea known as “bush medicine.”
Of course, I wasn’t particularly interested in learning everything that Truly felt was necessary to teach me. Much of it was messy, like cleaning fish. Some of it was complicated, such as cutting up a turtle, and certain missions we went on just seemed dangerous, like finding the right herb to make medicine. What if I picked the wrong herb by mistake?
As much as Truly wanted me to learn these tasks so that I would fit in on the island, it was she, herself, who really didn’t fit the mold. She was a very, very West Indian woman, but yet, in many ways, not one at all. Truly knew everyone, talked to those she needed to, and participated in all island festivities such as carnivals and jump-ups, as well as all other traditional island customs such as going to church on Sundays. But Truly was different. She lived alone, and no island woman did unless she was a widow, perhaps, and her children were in another country or on another island. Truly had no husband, no boyfriend, and no children. Truly was what the islanders call mannish. During that time period, away from the island, I would have said butch. I always looked at her as a lesbian who didn’t know she was one. I might have been wrong, of course, as there were times she looked at me or said something or just did something that made me think, “She does know herself.” But if I made a joke or tried to bring up a subject she didn’t want to hear, she just went back into her comfort zone of trying to teach me how to be a West Indian woman.
I once asked Truly if she would come to our nightclub and dance with me some night. Soca, I specified, as it was sexier to dance to soca. Not reggae, I added, as I knew that would be her option. She looked at me and asked if I knew what a turtle did when it wasn’t comfortable. Before I even had a chance to answer her question, either in a scientific or flirtatious way, Truly told me, “Turtle get under cover. That why it has shell. Good for hiding. The shell always there.”